Perspectives: Time to Talk About Race

When Martin Luther King Jr. was killed in Memphis on the afternoon of April 4, I was working on a lecture for the next day. The phone rang, and a decidedly Yankee voice said, “Lanier, you damn southerners have really done it now.” It was one of my best friends from graduate school.

I was stunned to get the news from a young history professor up north that Dr. King had been killed in Memphis, but then I wasn’t really surprised. Memphis was deeply polarized by a strike of sanitation workers. And in 1968, White resistance and Black anger in the city were a volatile brew.

In fact, I was one of many White southerners who were surprised that Dr. King had lived so long. As a college student at Stetson University, I was drawn into politics in 1960 by John Kennedy. Kennedy’s now famous phone call during the election helped to secure the release of Dr. King from a state penitentiary where many people feared he would be killed.

Fear of death was a constant in Dr. King’s life, from the time he led the bus boycott in Montgomery in 1955. I first became aware of his many death threats when he was close to the Stetson campus trying to integrate swimming beaches at St. Augustine, Fla. Southerners like me who grew up in a deeply segregated White world knew that he had good reason to fear a violent death.

Still, the impact of it happening that day in April just ten minutes away from my home in Memphis was startling, and crushing. Three days later I took part in a memorial march to honor Dr. King. At every street corner there were armed national guardsmen on the rooftops and a few tanks at the main intersections. When I arrived at the Black church where we started, Bayard Rustin was giving directions and reminding us of the need to remain non-violent if we were taunted. The sign that I carried, “Honor King, End Racism,” seemed a worthy counterpart to that of the sanitation workers, “I Am A Man.” The warm camaraderie with my fellow Black marchers quieted my fears, and inspired me for the future.

My career as an activist was short lived. There are other, more important ways to make history. My recollections and those of many others, as well as important documents from the civil rights era in Memphis, are preserved on a Web site, Crossroads to Freedom, maintained at Rhodes College. The idea is that if everyday people, Black and White, can record their memories and reflect on the meaning of their experiences, perhaps they can move toward talking about the continuing realities of race in today’s world. In the hands of a gifted teacher, the Web site might help another generation of students understand what their society has been through.

Much has changed in Memphis and in American society since 1968, but we still are burdened by the problems of poverty and failing schools and crime. And we still have difficulty talking about race. Our first serious Black candidate for the presidency, Barack Obama, delivered a stirring speech on the wounds of race that is deeply informed by a sense of history. It remains to be seen whether we can move beyond sound bites and emotional reactions to his minister to read his words carefully. I suspect his speech will be remembered as the most important public speech on race since Dr. King’s mountaintop sermon in Memphis.

There are encouraging signs in Memphis and around the country that people desire a more honest conversation about race and want to find new ways to bridge the racial divide. My college has many outreach programs in poor neighborhoods, and you can see a difference being made. We also are working with a number of civic groups in a program called Common Ground to bring Whites and Blacks together in small groups to talk about race.

Participating in small civic conversations about race and doing volunteer work in the community may not be as dramatic as marching in Memphis in 1968. CNN is not likely to interview you. But they are the opportunities available to us in our time, and they are in the deepest sense, history-making.

Dr. James Lanier is professor emeritus of American Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis.

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